As the clock turned toward 1 am EST, American democracy was actually running pretty smoothly. People had voted, votes were counted, races were being called. Donald Trump won Florida and Ohio. Joe Biden won Arizona (probably). Georgia was on everyone’s mind. Joe Biden gave a quiet, short speech. The race looked basically tied with a lot of counting to go. And then the president declared himself the winner of the 2020 presidential election. He is not. No one is yet, and it’s likely that no one will be for days to come.
The presidential race remains vanishingly close, and Trump could well end up securing a second term. Thoughts of a Joe Biden landslide collapsed early, but he picked up a few key states overnight. Pennsylvania remains the likeliest linchpin, where 1.4 million mail votes had still not been counted as of well after midnight. None of which stopped Trump from declaring victory in the earliest hours of Wednesday morning, first with a tweet. Of course.
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Twitter left the initial tweet alone but covered a subsequent Trump missive—in which Trump equates counting votes after November 3 with "stealing" the election—with a warning that "some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process." Facebook appended a link to "Election Information" to both Trump posts on its platform, and then a more explicit statement to his claim of victory: "Votes are being counted. The winner of the 2020 US presidential election has not been projected."
Trump followed a few hours later with a press conference that began a little after 2 am EST. First claiming that his lead in states like North Carolina and Georgia was insurmountable—which is untrue—Trump eventually claimed victory. "We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it," he said to the assembled crowd of family and supporters. This is also untrue.
The events of Tuesday night shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, however deleterious they prove to democracy. Trump has repeatedly insisted that the results of the election be known on November 3, a demand that’s both ahistorical and impossible. Media outlets have declared projected winners, yes, and candidates have conceded in the face of overwhelming evidence that they’re toast. But there’s a reason those decision desks haven’t made a call yet: Not enough votes have been counted. Especially not in the states that would matter most to Trump.
Take Pennsylvania, which Trump currently leads by over 14 percentage points. Over 3 million registered voters requested mail-in ballots in the state, which offered the option for the first time this year in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. State law prohibited any of those to be counted before 7 am Thursday, which means a full counting could take days if not weeks. As of 6:30 pm ET on Tuesday, Philadelphia County had counted only 75,000 of its 350,000 mail votes, with more expected to arrive through the Friday deadline. Around 550,000 votes there remain to be counted overall. And that’s just Philadelphia. And again, over a million mail ballots remain uncounted across the entire state.
Or Georgia, where an early Trump lead seems likely to erode as ballots from Democratic strongholds like Fulton County and DeKalb County get tabulated over the next two days. Or Michigan and Wisconsin, pivotal states that haven't reported enough results to provide useful information either way. (In a small irony, Trump declared those states safely in hand despite some razor-thin margins, while lamenting that Arizona, where he trailed by over 130,000 votes at the time of publication, remains within his reach if only they would count more votes.)
And while they may not be as tightly contested as Pennsylvania and Georgia, more than a dozen states consider mail ballots valid as long as they're postmarked by November 3 and arrive anywhere from a few days to over two weeks after, depending on where you live. It doesn’t help matters that the United States Postal Service can’t account for 300,000 mail ballots; the USPS refused a court order to complete a sweep for them in time for Tuesday’s counts.
It’s not just the incompleteness of tonight’s results that belie Trump’s declaration; it’s how the uncounted votes may change the outcome. In a 2013 paper, Ohio State law professor Edward Foley showed that a “blue shift” often occurs as more mail-in and provisional ballots get added to the final presidential vote count, meaning that Democrats often gain ground against their Republican opponents toward the end of the canvassing period.
“Assuming that the 2020 presidential election will be as close as the preceding four elections, it is safe to speculate that the winner of the upcoming presidential election may not be known on election night,” Foley wrote in a 2020 follow-up paper along with coauthor Charles Stewart III of MIT. “If that is the case, then the analysis presented here suggests that the Democratic candidate could have an advantage in overtime.”
The size of that advantage depends on several factors: the closeness of a race, the number of “overtime” votes left to count, and the speed at which they’re processed. But the phenomenon threatens to make a mirage out of whatever lead Trump sees for himself. The president seems well aware that the longer votes get counted—never mind that they were cast legally and on time—the worse things likely get for Donald Trump. Take North Carolina, where Trump’s margin is around 60,000 votes. As long as they’re postmarked by November 3, ballots have until this Friday to get there and still count.
“We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” Trump told reporters in North Carolina on Sunday, referring to battleground states more broadly.
In fact, the GOP hasn’t waited until the end of the election. Over the past few weeks it has moved aggressively in the courts to limit vote-counting after November 3 in multiple states, although largely without success so far. The challenges continued Tuesday night, with a lawsuit filed in (where else?) Pennsylvania, in an attempt to deprive voters with provisional ballots if their mail-in ballots were disqualified.
Trump doubled down on that threat early Wednesday morning, first claiming that Democrats were threatening to "take [Republicans] to court" despite the opposite being true in practice. He then made explicit the game plan that he had long telegraphed. "We'll be going to the US Supreme Court, and we want all the voting to stop," Trump said to a cheering crowd. "We don’t want them to find ballots at 4 in the morning and add them to the list," referring to ballots that citizens of the United States lawfully cast on or before Election Day but had not yet been processed.
While this should go without saying, Trump, Biden, and the media don’t get to decide who won. There’s a structure and strict timeline to the process. States legally have to certify their election results over the next several weeks. On December 14, the Electoral College meets and casts their ballots, which are sent to the president of the Senate by December 23. On January 6, Congress meets to count the votes in a joint session. All of this is typically a formality. But in a situation where every vote counts, and it takes days or weeks to count them, these are the deadlines that matter.
An increasingly narrow path remains for Donald Trump to win the 2020 presidential election. But he didn't early Wednesday morning, no matter how loudly he tweets it.
This story has been updated with quotes from Donald Trump's press conference.